Probiotics are the healthy microflora that live in your digestive tract and prebiotics are the nutrients that they use to thrive. Symbiotic products combine probiotics and prebiotics to enhance their beneficial effects. Although both prebiotics and probiotics need to be a regular part of your diet in order to provide health benefits, they do not need to be taken at the same time. Consult a health care provider before taking probiotic or symbiotic supplements.
Probiotics are beneficial micro-organisms that live naturally in your digestive tract. They provide a range of health benefits, such as digestive regularity, immune system support and increased absorption of nutrients from your food. Originally used to make fermented food products such as sauerkraut, probiotics are now encapsulated as supplements and added to functional foods to increase their health benefits. The exact benefit that you gain depends on the strain of probiotic bacteria that you take. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are the most common groups used in commercial products. Common food sources of probiotics include yogurt and kefir.
Prebiotics are the non-digestible carbohydrates that help probiotics survive. They are a form of dietary fiber found in many types of fruits and vegetables. The probiotics in your digestive tract ferment prebiotics to use as a source of energy. Fermentation releases short chain fatty acids, calcium and magnesium from your food, and discourages pathogenic micro-organisms from invading your system. Natural sources of prebiotics include artichokes, asparagus and garlic.
Symbiotic is a term used to describe dietary supplements or foods that contain both prebiotics and probiotics together. Their purpose is to increase the number of probiotic bacteria that become established in your digestive tract by providing a source of energy for them. Although prebiotics and probiotics do not need to be taken at the same time to provide health benefits, they both need to be a regular part of your diet. More research is needed to confirm whether symbiotics have a greater effect on your health than individual prebiotic and probiotic products.
When choosing a probiotic food or supplement, check the label for the strain of live bacteria and the number of colony forming units, or CFUs, per serving. Follow the manufacturer's storage instructions to avoid damaging the micro-organisms and stop using them after the expiration date. Consult a health care provider before taking probiotic or symbiotic supplements.
- American Gastroenterological Association: Probiotics: What They Are And What They Can Do For You.
- Prebiotic Canada: Prebiotic Fibre
- Gastrointestinal Society: Intestinal Microbes & Prebiotics at a Glance
- “Drug Discovery Today”; Using Probiotics and Prebiotics to Improve Gut Health; Kieran Tuohy et al.; December 2003